Reading the Book of Mormon in the Anthropocene: Alma 30:44 (in part)

(For this project I’m using, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, Edited by Royal Skousen).

Alma 30:44 (in part)

All things denote there is a God;
yea, even the earth, and all things that is upon the face of it,
yea, and its motion,
yea, and also all the planets, which move in their regular form,
doth witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

lectio

Responding to Korihor’s claims to the contrary, Alma argues there is a God. Korihor is identified as an ‘anti-Christ,’ because he “began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ.” (Alma 30: 12). He also argues that God, “is a being which never hath been seen nor known, which never was, nor never will be.” (Alma 30: 28)

As typically interpreted, Alma uses the above scripture to argue that we can see the effects of God in the natural world. For example, he points out that the regular motions of the planet provide a witness of a Supreme Creator.

meditatio

In the July issue of The Ensign the following picture accompanies this scripture:
milkyway-a

The universe is wondrous and sublime. I look at this picture, or those captured by NASA (like the recent Pluto fly-by!), or those from the Hubble deep field, and I find I am overcome by the breathtaking beauty of this universe. I stand in awe and wonder. On many occasions I’ve stood under such a blazing night sky and felt a sense that I am small. I sense that larger things are going on in the universe than I can ever hope to comprehend.

Alma’s argument, if read literally, seems draws on a kind of natural theology that does not really hold sway in contemporary thought. Lots of people look to the heavens, and while acknowledging the regularities they observe, do not see the hand of God. This is not to say Korihor won, it just means we need better arguments than those provided early thinkers. Science has made a habit of noting such regularities1, but has been hesitant to draw inferences as to ultimate causes of such things.

Or maybe we misread this scripture. Maybe Alma is not making evidentiary claims at all. Maybe he’s suggesting opportunities for experiences with God. Like any good pointer (‘denote’ in the above verse) we have to follow it to make the discovery of its referent.

So here is my paraphrase of the above verse.

“Korihor go outside at night. Ponder wonders of the universe and you will have an encounter with the Supreme Being. Heck, you don’t need even to look at the sky! Look at the nature under your feet. All of the things in nature, and this earth itself lends itself to an encounter with God.”

We also seem to forget the second clause in that group of lines: “yea, even the earth, and all things that is upon the face of it,”

Simplistic appeals to nature have always failed as evidence because for every reference to a sublime picture of the universe, I can show you one of horror.

This is why in the 19th Century the cruelty and messiness of nature inclined people to develop an natural a-theology, by using the ugliness, meanness, terror, messiness, and horror found in nature to undermine belief in God. Darwin himself points to the Ichneumonid wasp that lays its eggs in the body of a caterpillar as reasons why he has trouble seeing God in Nature2.

But interpreting Alma as I suggest, maybe he may be telling us that we can go into nature, into the complex ecologies of this earth, into the jumble and disarray of life and there we can encounter the Divine. Not the creator of a child’s story who waves magic wands creating worlds without natural process or that ignores the evidence recorded in our DNA and the rocks, but the one embedded in the full messiness of earth, the dirt, slime, and boogers. A creation in which intestines loaded with bacteria create new possibilities. A world ripe with mating organisms. Genesis rancid with gunk. The sublime not just in the song of a bird but the mites that infest its back. A God not just in the ‘idea’ of procreation separated out from its biology, but in the blood bath that is birth—amniotic fluid, placentas, torn flesh, sweat-soaked hair, and grunting, grinding teeth. A God who is there for all of it. Some want to throw the full horror of earth’s complexity into the Fall in literalist readings that do no real work in helping us manage what I think God wants us to experience—Existence is not easy, for him or us. Our heavenly parents still weep.

Can we find God here?
dead ratAlma says we can examine ‘All Things’ to find God. Or to find God–waiting.

I not only believe in the God who weeps. I believe in an embodied God invested in flesh, whatever that means. I believe in the God of rotting rats. A God who wants us acquainted with life’s full complexity including in the slime. One in the turmoil and wreck of existence. Someone acquainted with the fullness of what it means to be human. But then I remember He is and He asks us to remember that with some very vivid imagery of the fleshy existence we enjoy:

53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.
55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.
56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.
John 6:53-56

1. Science has moved out of the business of claiming ‘laws.’ The preferred language now is to speak of regularities, capacities, or even habits. Philosopher Nancy Cartwright has done much to disabuse us of the notion that there are invariable laws at play in the universe.”

2. “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” — From Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray, 22 May 1860

Comments

  1. I like this reading of Alma here: that he is perhaps not offering proof that God exists, but pointing out opportunities to engage with God. That reading is, at least, consistent with Alma’s comments a few chapters later that faith is “not to have a perfect knowledge of things,” and his description of the process of gaining faith as a process that does not look to external evidence, but to internal experience.

  2. Jason K. says:

    A hard sermon, but a good one. Thanks, Steve.

  3. Anne Chovies says:

    I think of it as the economies of heaven. God doesn’t get up each morning and command the sun to rise. Instead He established a self-sustaining system that, once set in motion, continues on its own to operate, including the messiness, to provide a place for our mortal probation. It doesn’t have to last forever, just long enough for “The Plan.” I also take hope from statements like those found in Isaiah 11:6-9 or Isaiah 65:25 that the messiness won’t always be as harsh as is found today in the world.

  4. Excellent. ‘Simplistic appeals to nature’ strike me as appeals to human pattern seeking that result in a deficient man-made god. But when we imagine a God of rotting rats we might be approaching the real. Not coincidentally, I believe that a true appreciation of and possible response to the theodicy, the problem of evil, lies on that road.

  5. I love this, Steve. I’ve always been bothered by how that scripture is used—I always hear it used as a “drop the mic” moment that suggests if you think all of this earth and universe was made without God’s help, you are crazy. It seems to suggest that (a) scientific explanations for life’s diversity is bunk and (b) nature is endlessly beautiful and romantic—two claims I do not agree with. I’ve always responded to conversations like these that if life denotes there is a God, it isn’t in the existence of life, but what life can teach us about God—the motifs of rebirth in seasons and plants, the action of consuming and feasting on things that determine our health, the different ways that creatures build homes and rear families. But even these analogies I discover tend to oversimplify and overlook the ugliness of natural life.

    So I very much appreciate this use of the scripture as a revelation that God is huge, and that God understands messes and ugliness as much as beauty and complexly perfect systems. This post really resonated with me this morning.

  6. A very hard sermon indeed.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    I’ve never read Alma as pushing Paley’s argument about complexity. I know that’s often how it’s read but I’m not sure that’s fair. (And Korihor definitely is no Darwinist that I can see) I think reading Alma’s argument in terms of a direct encounter with God makes far more sense. First it avoids him simply making a bad argument but second it makes a lot more sense within the text.

    The whole narrative is really about whether Korihor has had an encounter with the divine. And however suspiciously we read the narrative, clearly the narrative pushes the idea that Korihor did know through direct experience the divine all along.

    Connecting all this with the sacrament is genius as it’s the perfect example of seeing the divine in something mundane.

  8. Brad Burgess says:

    Interesting. Thanks Steve. Alma certainly didn’t go into the other side of nature, “red in tooth and claw.” In GDoct class yesterday on this, our instructor wrote on the left column “spiritual ways of knowing truth” and on the right column “scientific ways of knowing truth.” I thought oh boy, here we go, another slam of the scientific method. But it didn’t turn out that way. The bottom line was, in the end, Alma could not logically prove the existence of God, but neither could Korihor prove a negative, the nonexistence of God. Each had to rely on his encounter with God or lack thereof. Since Korihor is relying on a negative to prove a negative, it seems like Darwin’s argument might be more effective, especially in science-phobic communities.